Gender at the G20

If the G20 is serious about 'sustainable and balanced growth' as the 'premier forum for international economic cooperation', it needs to demonstrate its serious intent towards matters of gender equality at the G20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane this weekend.

Susan Harris Rimmer
10 November 2014

 "We commit to take concrete actions to overcome the barriers hindering women's full economic and social participation and to expand economic opportunities for women in G20 economies. We also express our firm commitment to advance gender equality in all areas, including skills training, wages and salaries, treatment in the workplace, and responsibilities in care-giving". G20 Leaders Declaration, Los Cabos 2012.

The Australian G20 Leaders’ Summit will be held in Brisbane this weekend. It is possible that this Summit could re-ignite a dialogue on gender equality that can be further developed by Turkey in 2015. This is the moment, as economic opinion and social policy about the importance of women’s economic empowerment has reached a convergence point.  

Line-up of finance ministers with Sydney Harbour in background

If the G20 is serious about 'sustainable and balanced growth' as the 'premier forum for international economic cooperation’, then it needs to demonstrate its serious intent towards matters of gender equality. Despite a promising paragraph in the Los Cabos Leaders Declaration and several references to health and education over the years, the G20 has been seriously deficient in its recognition of gender issues in the global economy, despite the clear evidence base for such issue in terms of growth and every facet of the G20’s focus. 

Economic policies and institutions still mostly fail to take gender disparities into account, from tax and budget systems to trade regimes.  Women are more likely than men to be in precarious, vulnerable, gender-stereotyped and low paying forms of employment; and to be engaged in the informal economy. They have less access to full and productive employment and decent work, social protection and pensions.  Evidence of the gendered impact of austerity measures is still emerging from Greece and Spain; from the high representation of female public sector employees laid off, to the mass closure of domestic violence refuges.

So when IMF chief Christine Lagarde left the Sydney meeting of the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors in March 2013, she commented that the “two genders” will have to contribute if the G20 was to achieve its aim of lifting economic growth targets by 2 per cent. A key initiative in Australia’s 2014 G20 Presidency is to lift global growth by more than 2 per cent over five years above what the IMF was forecasting in the October 2013 World Economic Outlook.

The fact is that Australia is hosting the G20 Summit in a time of deep pessimism about the global growth outlook. Keeping the global economy stable and achieving modest and inclusive growth is a daunting challenge.  And so our leaders must go for the strategies which have the best prospects of success and are ‘safe-to-fail’ in terms of social policy; meaning that even if the measures do not result in macroeconomic growth, the individuals targeted by the policies benefit. The best evidence we have is that investing in women’s economic empowerment is good for growth.

At the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in Cairns on 20-21 September 2014, the IMF and OECD said that the new policy measures that had been submitted by G20 members to date would increase global growth by an additional 1.8 per cent over the next five years. They noted ‘high implementation risks’. The policy gaps identified by the international organisations in their advice to ministers in February 2014 were in six areas – fiscal, rebalancing, labour supply, other labour market reforms, product market reforms, and infrastructure investment. Buried - but unspoken or unrecognised - in these areas is the need for some pressing reforms to promote gender equality.

The Brisbane Action Plan - 3 pages to be released at the Brisbane Leaders’ Summit this weekend - will detail the new policy measures proposed by G20 members to achieve the growth target. Since the target is for an extra 2 per cent in global growth, it will require extra policy measures.

To get an idea of what some of the ideas presented to G20 member nations were, one key recommendation to Australia from the OECD was as follows:

Improve performance of early childhood education by reforming childcare support to account for the high cost of pre-primary education and to encourage parents' labour force participation.

The OECD told Germany to:

Remove obstacles to full-time female labour participation by introducing mandatory healthcare contributions for non-working spouses and by reforming the joint taxation of married couples.

Many of the preoccupations of the working woman are shared by the leading economic institutions, because women are now seen as a valuable economic resource. ‘Forget China, India or the Internet’, as The Economist put it way back in 2006, ‘economic growth is driven by women’. As the article said: “Women complain (rightly) of centuries of exploitation. Yet, to an economist, women are not exploited enough: they are the world’s most under-utilised resource.”

And yet, the economic evidence is not moving the political mountains in the way it should. Leaders still want to build roads and bridges rather than invest in their human, female, capital. And so whilst governance scholars like me opine over the recent shifting of the weight of global wealth to the emerging economies for the first time in history, another monumental change has gone un-remarked.

Women’s labour force participation (ages 15–64) worldwide over the last two decades has stagnated, declining from 57 to 55 percent globally. That is right. The rates of women entering the world of paid work declined for the first time since World War II. Partly this is due to austerity measures hitting the public sector jobs held by women.

Jim Yong Kim, President of The World Bank Group states:

Globally, fewer than half of women have jobs, compared with almost four-fifths of men. Girls and women still learn less, earn less, and have far fewer assets and opportunities. They farm smaller plots, work in less profitable sectors, and face discriminatory laws and norms that constrain their time and choices, as well as their ability to own or inherit property, open a bank account, or take out a loan…

But women don’t want to take on the double burden of precarious paid work whilst remaining responsible for the unpaid care economy. G20 member states should take active steps towards more comprehensive measurement of economic activity. Unpaid care work and participation in the informal economy should be valued and included in the national accounts.

Since the promising language on ‘women’s full economic and social participation’ in the Los Cabos Declaration, progress on women’s economic empowerment in the G20 agenda has been too slow and too peripheral. That’s why the G20, for all its talk of sustainable, balanced and inclusive economic growth, must put gender on the agenda – particularly as the ‘premier’ forum for economic cooperation across the globe. Sustainable growth is not possible when the economic potential of half the world is ignored.

Progress at the Brisbane Summit

A recent expert meeting hosted by the ANU and UK think-tank Chatham House stressed the need to keep the G20 agenda focused on core economic and financial issues, whilst, at the same time, recognising that correcting the stark imbalances in economic opportunities for women is central to meeting the G20’s economic objectives.

And there is some good news on this front. The G20 Labour and Employment Ministers meeting in Melbourne recommended that G20 Leaders adopt the goal of a reduction in the gender participation gap by 25 per cent by 2025.

A communique from the ANU-Chatham House expert meeting entreats the G20 Leaders to adopt this goal, and urges each G20 member to outline their strategies to achieve this target. We also recommended that G20 members consider adopting the OECD Gender Recommendations which include a comprehensive set of policy principles, as put forward in the report ‘Achieving stronger growth by promoting a more gender-balanced economy’ (15 August 2014). 

Recent reports in Australian newspapers reflect that Australia may have adopted this target in the Brisbane Action Plan, but only as an aspirational goal.  Setting a target such as reducing the current gap in participation between men and women in G20 economies by 25 per cent by 2025 could bring more than 100 million women into the labour force. But, at the same time, we need to address the ‘double burden’ on women for unpaid caring and domestic management roles. 

For each country, the road will be different.  The IMF and OECD have set out educational inclusion for many countries, tax and welfare changes for some, parental leave and childcare schemes for others, including Australia.  The OECD stress a holistic package of policies is required. Australia can seek to emulate innovative policies from Canada and the Nordic countries around parental responsibilities, carer credits for superannuation, and genuinely flexible work practices for both men and women. We need to rethink who is the ideal worker for the 21st century economy - with due regard to human rights standards for decent work.  The warranted policy measures to achieve the G20 Labour and Employment Ministers’ “25x25” commitment (LEMM Declaration) should be mainstreamed and incorporated into future revisions and updates of the G20 countries’ national growth strategies.

The G20 must do more in relation to diversity in economic governance.  G20 members should promote more diversity of representation in all G20 processes with a target of at least 30 per cent female representation across all delegations (including working groups and engagement groups). This is particularly important for the finance ministers and central bank governors track.

The G20 needs a pivotal moment on this issue.  A nascent G20 discussion on 'inclusive' growth, the financial inclusion agenda and investing in gender equality measures for employment needs to accelerate.  Leaders of G20 countries need to demonstrate awareness of, and accountability for, the gendered consequences of their decisions.  We also need to expand the policy focus beyond the formal employment sector and replace it with an emphasis on interventions throughout the life cycle, noting women's disproportionate burden of unpaid care.


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